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Designer Babies

The topic of your lesson this week is Biotechnology and Genomics. A designer baby is a human embryo which has been genetically modified, usually following guidelines set by the parent or scientist, to produce desirable traits. This is done using various methods, such as germline engineering or pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). This technology is the subject of ethical debate, bringing up the concept of genetically modified “superhumans” to interbreed with and eventually replace modern humans.

Creating genetically modified children is no longer a science fiction fantasy, it’s likely a future scenario. Biologist Paul Knoepfler estimates that within fifteen years, scientists could use the gene editing technology CRISPR to make certain ‘upgrades’ to human embryos-from altering appearances to eliminating the risk of auto-immune diseases.

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Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis has the ability to select an embryo based on gender preferences. Since changing a gender is not needed, but desired this could cause much controversy. Additionally, the procedure is able to create a donor offspring or a “savior sibling”, which can assist a pre-existing offspring for medical purposes. PGD can help select for desirable traits by avoiding implanting embryos with genes that have serious diseases or disabilities.

Human leukocyte antigen (HLA) typing is used to match patients and donors for bone marrow or cord blood transplants. HLA are proteins, or markers, found on most cells of your body. Your immune system uses these markers to recognize which cells belong in your body and which do not. It’s a donor whose HLA are very closely matched to the recipients. The best donors for HLA are siblings. Siblings are more closely matched than non siblings.

In vitro fertilization (IVF) is an assisted reproductive technology (ART) commonly referred to as IVF. IVF is the process of fertilization by extracting eggs, retrieving a sperm sample, and then manually combining an egg and sperm in a laboratory dish. The embryo(s) is then transferred to the uterus.

The first designer baby in the United States was Adam Nash was from Colorado in 1990. In 1989 Adam Nash was conceived to save his 6 year old sister Molly, who was dying from an extremely rare genetic disease called Fanconi anemia. This rare bone marrow failure disease is passed down through families as an autosomal recessive disease. It results in decreased production of all types of red blood cells. Molly was unable to find a bone marrow match for a transplant. Through IVF, HLA Typing, and PGD, the Nash family had Adam. He had the stem cells in his umbilical cord that would save her life. Molly is now 23 years old. The Nash family went on to have a third, healthy child through IVF, again selecting an embryo without the Fanconi gene. The book My Sister’s Keeper (2009) was written by Jodi Picoult and loosely based on the Nash family. It is now a movie starring Cameron Diaz and Abigail Breslin.

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